Monday, June 28, 2010

This Shakespeare Guy--and YA Lit

I bought the book The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt more than a year ago, after it showed up on my list of recommendations I accumulated during the NCTE conference. If I remember correctly, I heard about the book from another teacher I met early one morning in the hotel lobby. Both of us has been unable to sleep late and had slipped downstairs to read until our roommates woke up and the conference opened. She was almost at the end of a book and crying. so I had to know--when it was appropriate to break in and ask--about the book's title.

I jotted down her name and email, and we talked about books we had recently encountered. All I had in my notes besides the title The Wednesday Wars were the words "Vietnam" and "Shakespeare." Incongruous? Maybe. Maybe not. The book had since been sitting on my shelf waiting its turn when I discovered the audiobook at the local library when I went looking for my next read for the road.

I will confess than I am a great fan of the best of young adult literature, perhaps because I am a fan of young adult readers. I may not be a seventh grade boy, but I can remember being that age. Holling Hoodhood, the narrator, was convincing and complex. His English teacher, who appeared at first to be the antagonist (Mrs. Baker hates my guts, Holling complained routinely in the beginning) turned out to be a great mentor and catalyst for her student's growth.

When he, the lone Presbyterian in his seventh grade class, is left alone in her class room when the other students are either in synagogue school or catechism class on Wednesday afternoons, she tries first to send him back to remediate sixth grade math, and when that fails, she takes it upon herself to have him clear every chalk eraser in the junior high. Eventually, though, she settles on a better plan and begins assigning him readings of Shakespearean plays, beginning with The Tempest. What he believes is a plan to torture him fails because he discovers the plays aren't so bad.

The story is set in 1968, when his high school sister's desire to be a flower child and oppose the war flies in the face of the principles of his father, an ambition architect and the town's 1967 Man of the Year. When Mrs. Baker's husband (Tybalt) is reported missing in action in Vietnam, the war becomes all the more real to Holling and his friends.

The supporting cast of characters--the friends, the teachers, coaches and adminstrators, the intimidating eight graders, and their families--is strong and appealing. As Schmidt leads Holling and Mrs. Baker through the other plays--Macbeth, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, he weaves in Hollings' emerging awareness of the universal truths, the lessons of Shakespeare Mrs. Baker intends.

As if Shakespeare and Vietnam were not enough, Schmidt manages to infuse the book with New York Yankees baseball as well. I kept thinking as I read that this would be a perfect companion to another favorite YA book, Ron Koertge's novel-in-verse Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, the story of a high school baseball player stuck at home with his writer father as he recovers from mononucleosis and the recent death of his mother.

A firm believer myself that the bard writes for everybody and all times, I am glad to have worked my way through a few more of my favorites with Gary Schmidt, Holling Hoodhood, and Mrs. Baker.


Frank 'n' Sandy said...

I'm headed to Amazon right now to see if it's available in paperback. Thanks again, cuz!

Marie said...

Sounds wonderful :) thanks for the great review!

Jessie Carty said...

Thanks for letting us know about this book :)